Links to resources on our website for students on our Shakespeare's Hamlet: Text, performance and culture MOOC.
Week Six - 21 February 2014
How quickly these six weeks have gone by: as several of you have pointed out, it is impossible to do justice to a play as rich as Hamlet in such a short time, but it has been a terrific luxury to have the opportunity to try – in most university-level Shakespeare courses Hamlet would flash past in a week or at most two.
I thought I would use this last weekly blog to at least gesture towards some of the topics we haven’t really had the chance to touch on at all during the course, but before I do so let us reassure ourselves that there are some things we *do* know by now with a rapid recap of the last six weeks:
- Hamlet exists in three different early texts, and it has continued to generate yet more amalgams and working versions and spin-offs ever since Shakespeare’s time, as successive actors, directors and writers have taken on the role of the Prince by editing, supplementing, interpreting, parodying, illustrating and extending the play.
- Hamlet was written with the actor Richard Burbage in mind, and for an audience who already knew a now-lost, more straightforward dramatization of the same story, a version that in style was probably more like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy than it was like Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
- Many Elizabethan spectators probably tried to understand Hamlet’s feigned and Ophelia’s real madness in terms of ‘humoural’ psychology and the notion of melancholia: ever since then, successive understandings of psychology and insanity have been sought and found in the play.
- This is a remarkably open play, which in the theatre has successfully lent itself to a wide range of different actors and a wide range of different agendas: by choosing between different textual variants and different design options, modern theatre practitioners have helped keep Hamlet perennially new and topical.
- Despite the challenges posed by this accumulated history of great and memorable previous productions and a script which many Anglophone spectators know almost by heart, actors continue to relish the opportunity to play the Prince and test their intelligence and sensibility against his.
- Although the play’s protagonist can seem a negative, deathly, closed-off figure, his discontented half-knowledge that he is trapped inside a revenge tragedy, coupled with his endless desire to question us as well as his fellow-characters, give him a powerful appeal to female as well as male performers.
Right: now on to a couple of things we haven’t considered. In this week’s video (filmed beside the figure of Hamlet that is one of four Shakespearean characters that surround the Gower memorial to the playwright in Stratford), Abigail, Kate and I talk a little about what we might feel about the play’s ending.
This begs the question of how adequate the play’s last scene is to the possibilities and themes its earlier acts open up: certainly some actors have felt that the determined and deterministic Hamlet who returns from his interrupted voyage to England with his mind made up is a less interesting or complex character than the speculative detective and self-conscious theatre enthusiast of the first four acts. That, in its turn, perhaps opens the larger question of what we as audiences want from tragedy, and why: why do we go on wanting to watch plays in which interesting people die anyway? Isn’t there something sado-masochistic about watching someone on stage with whom we can identify but whom we know is going to be killed at the end of the performance? I do not claim to have a single simple answer to these questions, I should add, but they are certainly worth thinking about. Aristotle certainly thought so, and he definitely didn’t have the last word. (And Shakespeare didn’t know Aristotle’s Poetics anyway, if that matters….)
Needless to say, most of us at the Shakespeare Institute will go on working on Hamlet from different perspectives long after this course ends. (Dame Janet Suzman, one of our honorary fellows, who directed a splendid Hamlet in Johannesburg in 2006, calls it ‘a black crystal which we can’t keep from turning this way and that.’) Our librarian Karin Brown, for instance, is working on a digital archive of Hamlet performance materials, by which researchers will be able to scroll through an on-line text of the play to which images and annotations drawn from production photographs, promptbooks and actors’ scripts will be keyed: she is particularly delighted that the university has just acquired the annotated script used by the actor and dancer Robert Helpmann when he played the Prince in Stratford in 1948. Professor John Jowett is confronting the play’s textual complications once more as he edits a wholly fresh digital and print edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, the New Oxford Shakespeare. Martin Wiggins is placing Hamlet into the full context of the drama of its time by publishing a minutely-detailed account of everything we know about all the plays of Shakespeare’s century, his multi-volume Catalogue of English Renaissance Drama, 1533-1642. I am myself looking at the play’s fortunes in Asian countries as I set about co-designing a distance-learning course about Shakespeare in Asia (on which topic, incidentally, see the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive), and writing about its fortunes on other stages too as part of a history of Shakespeare and the making of national theatres, both in Britain and elsewhere. So we will be busy on Hamlet for a good while to come, never mind being on hand as always to talk with the Royal Shakespeare Company about it next time it features in their repertory.
As I say, six weeks is a short time, and if these have been your first six weeks of thinking about Hamlet I should warn you that they may not be your last by a long way. I myself first got to know the play when I was cast as the priest at Ophelia’s funeral in a grammar school production in Dorset in the 1970s, and I haven’t managed to put it down since: I have by now seen it performed in many different kinds of theatre and cinema and many different styles and many different languages, and I have seen comic parodies, and an opera version with a happy ending, and Manga comics, and once within a single week I saw a Japanese Noh adaptation and a wonderfully black-comic post-modern German version, both of which left out Yorick’s skull. They all had very different takes on what mattered about Hamlet’s story and what it might mean to watch someone think aloud for half an evening and where the theatre might take us in relation to the meeting-points between life and death, the political and the hereafter. If you still don’t feel after these six weeks that you have really got to the bottom of this play, don’t worry: you never will. Hamlet may die, in that sudden complete bloodbath of a final scene, but his questions live on.
Thanks for taking the course.
Week Five - 14 February 2014
Weather conditions were so extreme when I was filming this week’s video blog that I have decided to offer you two takes, one shot in torrential rain –
and one during a break in the clouds –
To supplement both what Jonathan Slinger has been saying this week about the 2013 RSC Hamlet and what I say in the video blog about the National Theatre, here is an account of some other Stratford productions of the play, together with some images and even some filmed extracts.
Following on from my remarks about Shakespeare’s London as a port, one last glimpse of the international dimension of the play before I leave you to start thinking about ‘To be or not to be.’ There is currently a Swiss project in progress that is seeking to track down every quotation from Hamlet ever made, and to key them to an ever-expanding on-line ‘HyperHamlet’. This is obviously a Sisyphean task that could occupy a large team of researchers until the last syllable of recorded time, and if you have spotted an interesting allusion to the play somewhere that you would like added to the database I am sure that the general editor, the great Professor Balz Engler of Basel, would be very happy to hear from you. Have a look at http://www.hyperhamlet.unibas.ch/ and marvel. The ripples from this extraordinary and ever-self-adapting text just keep spreading and deepening. See you next week -- MD.
Week Four - 7 February 2014
With Abigail looking at the English stage history of the play this week, it might be worth remembering how powerful Hamlet has been in one other country too. I wrote some weeks ago now about how many European countries the action and dialogue of Hamlet manages to involve, and I’m brought back to the subject of the play’s international reach by an event which takes place in Bavaria on February 7th. It’s the 50th birthday of the Munich Shakespeare Library – or, more properly, the Shakespeare-Forschungsbibliothek München – which was set up, with much encouragement and advice from the Shakespeare Institute, in honour of the playwright’s 400th birthday. It’s the only research library completely dedicated to the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries on the European mainland, and it is the haunt of some wonderful scholars – I would especially recommend Andreas Hoefele’s book Stage, Stake, and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre, for instance (Oxford University Press, 2011), a fine study of the connections between Elizabethan drama and some of the other forms of entertainment with which it competed for space.
When the Shakespeare Institute celebrated its 60th in 2011, our friends in Munich sent a video message in which they adapted parts of the opening scene of King Lear, so this afternoon we have taken five minutes between Martin Wiggins giving a talk about Ford and the student drama society revising its constitution to reply in kind. We each congratulated the Bavarian library in halting German in phrases adapted from Shakespearean tragedy, and while Ewan Fernie made a fierce Edmund from King Lear and our Scottish librarian Karin Brown a fine Lady Macbeth, much of the material was from Hamlet. Abigail made a winsome Ophelia, Martin a terrifying Ghost (or rather Geist). I wished that my too too solid flesh would melt, as well I might. I hope it will amuse them.
Even if the watching crowd at the library’s celebration on Friday includes civic dignitaries and sponsors among the literary critics, they all ought at least to recognize the lines we’ve mangled, since if anything Hamlet is even better known in Germany than it is in English-speaking countries. The Germans had a national society for the study and appreciation of Shakespeare before they even had a state, and during the First World War one commentator suggested that if Germany won, the Kaiser ought to make a complete renunciation by England of all claims on Shakespeare one of the terms of an Allied surrender. In the Second World War, some prisoner-of-war camp commandants encouraged Allied prisoners to act Shakespeare for them, and the repertories of these now often forgotten captive theatres included Hamlet. (I’ve written about these performances, and about some other unusual non-professional renditions of Hamlet, in Shakespeare and Amateur Performance, 2011). Hamlet had, after all, been one of Germany’s favourite plays since the 1780s and indeed far earlier – we still have a garbled German translation, partly based on the Bad Quarto, subtitled Der Bestrafte Brudermord (The Punishment of Fratricide), which dates from the first half of the seventeenth century.
In 2010 I was lucky enough to visit the Craiova international Shakespeare festival in Romania, a biennial event which that year consisted entirely of different productions of Hamlet from all around the world. Predictably, one of the most vivid and also one of the boldest productions was the German one, directed by Thomas Ostermeier: it remains one of the few Hamlets I have seen which did without the image of Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull, making up for this striking cut by adding a long, blackly comic opening dumb-show depicting Old Hamlet’s accident-prone funeral. More on Hamlet and Germany here for anyone interested - and apologies for my slip of the pen about the marital history of Mary, Queen of Scots: for ‘her first husband’ read ‘her previous husband.’ Wherever you are contemplating Hamlet, have a good week, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from yet another English incarnation of the Dane – the RSC’s last Prince, Jonathan Slinger – next week.
Week Three - 31 January 2014
With this week’s focus on melancholy, I thought it might be useful by way of an antidote to think a little about Hamlet and comedy. Many learners have commented that they have been surprised at how much incidental black humour they have been finding in the play, and it’s certainly true that Hamlet seems to have a gift for satirical comedy. In performance his bitter witticism ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio – the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’ often produces the first laugh of the evening, and it is a laugh sometimes tinged with relief that the black-clad, depressive prince who has just taken us into his confidence with all the despair and sorrow of his first soliloquy ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt….’ turns out to have a sense of humour as well. He has a kind of fun at the expense of Polonius, and runs what are often hilarious rings around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he eventually kills via what is essentially a very elaborate practical joke; and in the midst of coping ably with a wisecracking gravedigger, he is suddenly confronted with the skull of a childhood friend – a court jester. It is part of Hamlet’s tragedy that under other circumstances he clearly might have done pretty well as a comedian.
I talked briefly way back in week 1 about this play’s particular fertility as a source of other texts – texts which try to expand or repeat or explain or even partly replace the play – and it’s worth noticing that spin-offs and adaptations of Hamlet include plenty which take the prince’s anarchic sense of humour and run off with it. Quite apart from ‘The Grave-makers’ – that mid-seventeenth-century abbreviation, a sort of edited highlight of Hamlet, that consisted solely of the dialogue with the gravediggers – the play has spawned all sorts of variously affectionate supplements and parodies. Tom Stoppard famously launched his career with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which imagines the offstage lives of Hamlet’s former college friends in the absurdist style of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but he was only following W.S. Gilberet (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who had written a Hamlet skit called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in 1874. (And by then there had long been a whole vogue for musical burlesque versions of famous Shakespeare plays, which had started with John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie in 1810).
In Gilbert’s play, Claudius is riven with shame and sorrow not for having killed a brother but merely for having written a very unsuccessful and very bad tragedy in his youth; Hamlet tactlessly and unwittingly has the Players perform it, and he gets banished to England as a result – thereby happily freeing Ophelia to marry the man who is secretly her childhood sweetheart, namely Rosencrantz. Nicely combining the concerns of this week and last week on this course, Rosencrantz and Ophelia discuss Hamlet’s changing appearances in performance, and the range of opinions about his mental state, in their first dialogue together:
OPHELIA Alas, I am betrothed!
ROSENCRANTZ Betrothed? To whom?
OPHELIA To Hamlet!
ROSENCRANTZ Oh, incomprehensible!
Thou lovest Hamlet?
OPHELIA (Demurely) I said we were betrothed.
GUILDENSTERN And what's he like?
OPHELIA Alike for no two seasons at a time.
Sometimes he's tall -- sometimes he's very short --
Now with black hair -- now with a flaxen wig --
Sometimes with an English accent -- then a French --
Then English with a strong provincial "burr."
Once an American, and once a Jew --
But Danish never, take him how you will!
And strange to say, whate'er his tongue may be,
Whether he's dark or flaxen -- English -- French --
Though we're in Denmark, A.D. ten-six-two--
He always dresses as King James the First!
GUILDENSTERN Oh, he is surely mad!
Well, there again
Opinion is divided. Some men hold
That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men --
Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad --
Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane --
Some that he will be mad, some that he was
Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole
(As far as I can make out what they mean)
The favourite theory's somewhat like this:
Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy.
This play is going to be performed here at the Shakespeare Institute by an impromptu group of RSC actors at 4pm on February 16th. If you would like to read the whole (short) script, a copy is available on the web, thanks to Boise State University.
And if you are curious about Hamlet Travestie, the University of Pennsylvania have provided it here.
If you want an even shorter and much more foul-mouthed travesty of the play, there is also Richard Curtis’s The Skinhead Hamlet, but I am not about to quote any of that here, for reasons which will be obvious to any of you who may know it!
Have a good week – more next time -- Michael Dobson
Week Two - 24 January 2014
Here in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company currently have two shows running. In their main, large auditorium (its newly-redesigned thrust-stage shape partly modelled on that of the Globe), there is an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; and in their smaller Swan auditorium (its size and proportions closer to that of another London space used by Shakespeare’s company, the indoor Blackfriars) there are stage adaptations, by Mike Poulton, of Hilary Mantel’s two novels (so far) about Thomas Cromwell’s career at the Tudor court, namely Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Stratford is not a large town, and here at the nearby Shakespeare Institute we see the audiences for these productions passing by en route for the theatre. It’s pretty easy to recognize which people have tickets for which: Peter Pan is attracting a more diverse crowd usually including children, while the two Mantel adaptations are drawing an audience already familiar with the novels on which these plays are based, on average older and more dressy. In Peter Pan (or Wendy and Peter Pan, to give this version by Ella Hickson its proper title), actors occasionally address the audience directly, most crucially by inviting them to applaud in order to show that they believe in fairies and thus revive the poisoned Tinkerbell. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies there is plenty of intimacy between players and spectators, but no direct invitations to participate.
I mention these two styles of present-day production because I think it is important to remember that not all Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses or productions were the same either. The Globe enjoyed prestige as well as popularity, and the title pages of some of the plays acted there point out that these scripts have been played at court before royalty as well as on this public stage on the South Bank. Representations of Elizabethan playhouses in popular culture and in old primary-school textbooks tend to depict them as invariably noisy, rough places full of continually shouting men with mud-smeared faces, but while some performances at some theatres *may* have been a bit like that – the Red Bull in Clerkenwell, for instance, certainly had a reputation for being pretty down-market – it seems unlikely that such imagined audiences would have paid good money in order not to listen to the sorts of intent questioning and rich poetry that occupy so much of the time in any performance of Hamlet. This was a very popular play, with a whole range of readers and spectators, but it must always have demanded – and received, and repaid – a measure of close attention.
I’ve recommended the www.shalt.org.uk website as a fine source of information about the Elizabethan theatres before, but am happy to do so again – if you have time, among its contents are audio recordings of some excellent lectures on the subject. If you want to look really closely at some of the first-hand evidence we have about the theatre business within which Shakespeare worked, by the way, then have a look at the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitization Project. Here you can read about, and see in high-definition photographs, our best primary records about 16th and 17th-century English theatre, the surviving business papers of the main rivals to Shakespeare’s company, the Admiral’s Men. You’ll actually be able to see from theatre takings how popular The Spanish Tragedy was, and you’ll even be able to see how much Ben Jonson got paid for writing in some new dialogue.
One last website you might find interesting: the British Library owns copies of all the early editions of Hamlet, and you can admire scans of them and read about them here -- http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/playhamlet.html
In next week’s video blog, in keeping with week 3’s theme of melancholy, we’ll visit the churchyard in which Shakespeare’s father is buried, and in this blog I’ll be writing about some of the spin-offs, adaptations and parodies which Hamlet was already beginning to inspire within Shakespeare’s lifetime. Meanwhile, enjoy Erin on Hamlet’s mind – see you next week.
Week One - 17 January 2014
More videos from the Shakespeare Institute
Further study with the Shakespeare Institute and the University of Birmingham
Perspectives and opinion pieces
Poems and plays are for everyone, not just a tiny minority, Professor Michael Toolan (21 October 2013)
Richard III: The real king of history, or marvellous theatrical villain?, Professor Michael Dobson (7 February 2013)
Links to academic profiles
Find out more about the backgrounds and research interests of the Shakespeare Institute academics behind the course: